Why Indigenous justice matters
On 6 December 2013, the world paused to reflect on the passing of perhaps the greatest leader and changemaker of our time. My Facebook feed became an outpouring of love and respect for Mandela and of grief for the loss to humankind of a true father. One friend offered this memorialisation: ‘His heart may have come to rest, but it set a beat that continues to echo through all of our spirits.’
This got me thinking. Certainly the world has lost one of its great figureheads of justice and fairness. But it needn’t be the case that Madiba is lost to us. We can take into our hearts the principles that he stood for, and make them live and breathe in our own country, in our own time.
One of Mandela’s defining character traits is said to have been that he could not abide injustice, and it is surely this that underpinned his lifelong struggle to achieve racial equality in South Africa.
The thing is, we have entrenched racial inequality in Australia as well. Our Indigenous people may be less demographically visible than the black South Africans, but our issues here are no less urgent and no less shameful.
I am not Indigenous and I wasn’t even born in this country (my parents brought me to Australia, from South Africa, when I was not yet two years old). But I feel very strongly that the disadvantage that besets black Australia is my problem too. It’s my problem because I have built my life here, in a beautiful country with a very dark history – one which resonates inter-generationally into the present. Indigenous people have paid a very high price for white Australians to live in the lucky country.
In Australia, I believe we have suffered from an ongoing and widespread failure to imagine ourselves into the situations of Indigenous families. It was a point powerfully made by Paul Keating in his 1992 Redfern Address, where the then Prime Minister reflected on how we had discriminated against and excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over generations:
We failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?
The 2008 apology for the evils perpetrated against members of the Stolen Generations was an important moment of acknowledgement of past wrongs, but for most Australians, issues around justice and equity for Indigenous people is probably a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
Doubtless it is not easy to understand the impact of past law and policy on the status quo. Some (including a former Prime Minister) have argued that Indigenous disadvantage is not the business, ‘problem,’ or responsibility of the current generation: we weren’t the colonialists. And that’s true, I wasn’t a colonialist, but it doesn’t mean it’s not our concern.
I believe that our collective, ongoing failure to give proper priority to issues of Indigenous justice is our greatest national shame. The failure is less budgetary and more because government consistently works with Indigenous communities in ways that are ineffective or counterproductive. These practical failures should reflect poorly on government, but instead they tend to create in the public a kind of compassion fatigue or a vague hostility towards Indigenous issues. This, along with the often ‘hidden from sight’ nature of these issues, and low levels of knowledge about the effects of colonisation, means that our collective response to Indigenous justice issues is overwhelming under-reaction.
We should be outraged beyond words that little boys growing up in Wilcannia in remote New South Wales can expect to live, on average, for 36.7 years. We should lose sleep over the fact that Indigenous young people in some locations are more likely to be returned to prison than finish high school. We should be appalled that our Indigenous children are the most imprisoned young people in the world, and moved to urgent action at the recently announced federal government funding cuts to already stretched, vitally important Aboriginal Legal Services.
Paul Keating asked Australians to consider how it might feel, as a community, to carry the burden of colonial history:
Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.
Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it.
For Jews, the imaginative leap is not so great. So it is fitting that for eight years, the Derech Eretz program has been quietly working on helping young Jews make that leap. The program takes its place among a small cohort of other strong partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people, such as the AIME mentoring program between university students and Indigenous high school students, and the Aspiration Initiative, which also works with Indigenous high school students looking to transition to tertiary studies.
Derech Eretz is a partnership with the communities in Toomelah and Boggabilla, on the NSW/QLD border, and started as an annual school holiday program for children in those communities. For about a week, a dozen or so Jewish university students (from study fields spanning medicine to social work, law to arts) provide play, friendship and good food to as many kids as want to join in. The bonds developed with the children and the community grew so strong that within a couple of years of inception, an annual alumni trip was developed to allow previous participants to return. Last year, at the communities’ request, the program ran its first leadership development camp for young adults from the communities. Many participants were kids who have known ‘The Jewish Mob’ through school holiday programs right through their childhood. Through 2014, Derech Eretz – now the flagship Indigenous partnership program at Jewish Aid Australia – will send six groups to Toomelah/Boggabilla. This ‘little program that could’ continues to deepen its relationships and provide what support it can.
It has always been clear to me that participants on Derech Eretz gain more than they give. Throughout the program, time is set aside for participants to hear from a range of people – elders, community workers, politicians, school teachers, government agencies, health workers – about the history of ‘The Mish’ (Toomelah was a mission until the mid-1970s) and the range of challenges that the residents Toomelah and Boggabilla face day in, day out. They learn about the resilience of the leaders of the community and the humour and belly-fire that has kept them fighting for their people over the years.
I think that the greatest achievement of this program is not necessarily the contributions that it makes to community, but the inroads that it makes into our collective failure to imagine what it would be like to walk in the shoes of our first people. Derech Eretz is building a small army of passionate, vocal, soon-to-be professionals who have been moved and changed by the time spent in community. They teach their families and their friends, and they take their new knowledge and sensitivity into their jobs and lives. They return to Toomelah and Boggabilla (or seek out opportunities to live and work in other Indigenous communities) and they become advocates for community-owned, community-controlled solutions. Australia at large may still have a great deal to do in coming to terms with the legacy of its colonial policies, but programs like Derech Eretz are creating – in microcosm – the conditions in which national healing can occur. From little things, big things grow.
You may remember Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration in Hyde Park, London, where the musicians, film stars and politicians turned out to honour him. But you may not remember Mandela’s words to the crowd that day. They are not unlike the exhortation in our own Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers: ‘Yours is not to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’ Mandela told the world on that day: ‘It is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It’s in your hands now.’ The greatest honour we can pay the memory of Mandela, and the only path of integrity as Australians living on this land, is to stand up and become an advocate for change in our own contexts.
Last year, an office bearer in the owner’s corporation in my apartment block told me I wasn’t permitted the small Aboriginal flag that sits above the peephole on the outside of my front door, because it was an unauthorized use of common property. I explained to him that when he took down his mezuzah, I would take down my flag. That’s my flag. It speaks to who I am on this land as much as the precious mezuzah that sits next to it.
The story of this land is the story of all of us who live here. The wrongs that need righting, the people who cry out for justice, weigh on all of us. It’s all of our work. Those kids in Wilcannia fighting against that statistical life expectancy of 36 years – they’re my kids. They’re your kids too.